I turned 51 yesterday.  At the documented time of my birth (3:45 p.m.) I was in the air en route from Newark to Houston, enjoying the view from the window seat. I had bought the aisle seat, but ended up hitting the coach jackpot: an empty row.  With glee, I took my backpack out from its under-the-seat restriction and put it on the seat next to me.  I spent $8.50 on a box of snacks and put the remains on the aisle seat. I chilled.

Airplane seating puts me on the verge of panicky.  I can only sit in the aisle seat; the middle makes me claustrophobic and the window restricts my freedom.  The aisle seat allows me free access to the restroom, the aisle, the garbage can in the flight attendants’ area, and basically anywhere other than my seat.  In the window seat I am dependent on the other passengers in my row.  In the middle seat I am at their mercy.  If I need to flee I can’t get away.  The last time I sat in the middle seat I felt mercilessly penned in by diners on either side with their tray tables down.

I didn’t know I was claustrophobic until my doctor prescribed a head MRI.  I never even got inside the machine.  I panicked just looking at it.  After two failed attempts with an oral sedative and one failed attempt with IV Ativan, I ultimately had to have the procedure done under general anesthesia.  Pitiful, isn’t it?

My claustrophobia was about being unable to get away, just like airplane seating.  How the hell would I get out of that MRI machine on my back?  I was totally dependent on the MRI tech, and I couldn’t trust that he wouldn’t get on his cell phone, fight with his girlfriend and run outside for a smoke.  In the meantime I might be in that tunnel hitting the panic button over and over, listening to the terrible thuds and pings, my head strapped down, no way to exit.

I wondered if I had the procedure while lying on my stomach it might have been tolerable.  I could wriggle out using my elbows for mobility.  On my back I was helpless.

This idea was reinforced when I had my first-ever facial, in celebration of my 51st birthday.  First, they insisted I take all my clothes off even though it was just a facial.  I had to wear a white terrycloth halter top, which of course was reminiscent of the fake concealment of a hospital gown.  The esthetician made small talk, asked me why it had taken me so long to have a facial (what?), and proceeded to cover my eyes so she could begin her treatment.

And my panic began.  Under the sheet my hands balled into fists.  I was ready to fight.  I was on my back, blind, and virtually naked.  Then the esthetician rubbed lotion on my hands (for a facial?) and put them in some kind of mittens.  I struggled to fight the idea that she was further incapacitating me.  After all, she seemed like a lovely young lady and even though we were alone in a darkened room surely someone would hear me scream if I needed to.  It was a 45-minute treatment and I relaxed for maybe only 15 minutes of it.

So is the root of claustrophobia really loss of control?  I felt at the mercy of the MRI tech, just as I felt at the mercy of the spa worker, just as I am at the mercy of my fellow air passengers.  I have found that as I get older my fears have grown greater; 20 years ago the MRI might not have been as big a deal. Do our negative experiences aggregate throughout our lives?  Is estrogen essential to give courage to child-bearing women, bringing fear to post-menopausal women in its absence?  Or am I just falling to pieces?